Thursday, 30 April 2009

The Fountain (2006)

For Australian actor Hugh Jackman, 2006 was a banner year. As if to make up for the attrocity that was Van Helsing, Jackman starred in two films of astonishing depth, beauty and interest that were equally obscure and poorly promoted disproportionate to how good they actually were. One of them was dueling Victorian magician film The Prestige, and the other was The Fountain.

Nevermind, for the sake of this review, that in the same year he was also a voice in Happy Feet and played Wolverine in X-Men: The Last Stand.

Being directed by Darren Aronofsky, whose previous work includes the mind-altering π and Requiem for a Dream, one should easily have expected The Fountain to be as astonishing as it was emotionally and intellectually challenging. Many evidently did not, if the sheer number of people walking out on the theatre when we saw it was any indication.

We can't really blame that half-dozen for walking out a half-hour in, as we've never seen a film so deceptively advertized. To watch the trailers for The Fountain, it seems like a fairly straightforward Sci-Fi film about Conquistador Tomas who finds the Edenic Tree of Life in South America, then fastforwards to the same Thomas Creo living the present day and trying to cure his wife's cancer to bald astronaut Tom flying in some kind of space bubble with the same Tree of Life. Perhaps a little weird and 2001-esque, but still straightforward.

Furthermore, it promises to deliver both implicitly and explicitly on our leisure culture's greatest obsession: the conquest of death. Of course, it is implied by Hugh Jackman living for at least 1000 years. But it is also stated outright when he exclaims things like "Death is a disease... and I will cure it." Brilliant and timely... Was it not relatively recently that Stephen Hawking made back-page news by proposing solutions to the problem of eventual human exinction? Do not the constant stream of news articles about robots and prosthetics, and changed legislation on issues like stem-cell research, promise a golden, transhumanist age for our species Hell-bent on ecological destruction and nihilistic uncertainty?

However, to say "bait-and-switch" would not be doing The Fountain's stunt justice. Instead of a straightforward Sci-Fi film, we get a modern drama nested between metaphor and symbolism that completely contradicts the implied theme of the film. The modern day incarnation of the Thomas character is a cancer researcher feverishly spending day and night on a cure for his own dying wife, who is reconciling herself to death by writing a book, "The Fountain", about a Conquistador searching in South America for the Edenic Tree of Life. Provoked by all things Mayan, she is fascinated by the myth of First Father - the Mayan Adam whose sacrifice gives seed to the Tree of Life from which everything else grows - and of Xibalba - the nebula of a dying star that is the Mayan world of the dead. Meanwhile, a strange South American tree whose compounds seem to retard and then reverse aging holds out hope for the dogged researcher.

Further confounding this non-linear alternating between the modern drama and the metaphoric layering are the symbolic interludes of a Buddhistic, sphere-enveloped Jackman taking the Tree of Life to this same nebula of Xibalba, to carry out his wife's 500 year old wish to be resurrected with the star's rebirth. Amidst all this we receive a meditation, not on eternal life, but on reconciliation to death. In one of the film's few Christian glosses, it opens with a paraphrase from the Book of Genesis about the trees of Knowledge and of Life, and how Man was cast out of the Garden and guards set up to protect the Tree of Life. The trailer implies that this unfortunate state of affairs will be reversed. The movie explains why this blessed state of affairs must be so.

The only other substantial reference to Judeo-Christian tradition is the Grand Inquisitor of the film's Spanish flashbacks. Looking to usurp the Queen of Spain for her heresy of seeking eternal life in the forests of South America, the self-flagellating Inquisitor humourlessly mouths the enduring Gnostic-Pagan belief that the body is a prison for the soul which is released by death. This view forms the fundamental underlying narrative of the West, however much it is blamed on Jews and Christians. Where in past ages the Barbarians and Philosophers argued that the soul and body were separate and the body inferior, our self-declared Brights and Freethinkers agree that the soul and body are separate and that there is no such thing as a soul. Thomas Creo agrees, in his own way, with the Grand Inquisitor by having nothing to do with fairytales of the afterlife, and viewing death as the ultimate disease that destroys everything he loves. Both view death merely as the cessation of life, good or bad.

What his wife, and eventually he, discovers is death as transformation. For death is not the end of life, but the instrument of change, not only as change in our forms, but as change within our lives. Death and knowledge of good and evil come hand-in-hand, because without death there cannot be growth and perspective... The mere act of reconciling oneself to finality - the stages of life, the death of loved ones, the decline of civilizations, the exinction of humanity, the self-immolation of the Sun, the extinguishing of the universe - brings with it wisdom and grace that fully realizes one's personhood in this stage of existence and prepares one for the next. As horrifying and painful as death is and however much we may dance macabre in defiance of it, it is nevertheless this instrument of growth.

The opposite, eternal life, would bring only stagnation as there is no finality and therefore nothing to reconcile to. Just ceaseless living. Not even being... simply living. It is also illusory. Perhaps we could download our consciousness into machines (the body as a prison for the soul) and colonize the universe (the earth as a prison for humanity), but we would still have to face the eventual collapse or cold petering-out of the cosmos. Death is inevitable, and in our constant obsession to cure death it may be that we will give up on actually living. As Thomas discovers, it isn't death that takes away everything he loves: it is eternal life. Reconciliation to death gives us the grace and wisdom to lead lives of enduring, transcendant value.

The growth, wisdom and grace that comes from reconciliation to death prepares us for the transformation. The Fountain tends towards a more naturalistic idea of transcendant transformation than, say, the Christian idea of resurrection. In the course of the film, it is the All of the universe to which death ushers us into, whether our continuance in the natural or the cosmic cycles of growth, death, decay, and our elements forming the building blocks of the next growth. Call it the All, or the Ground of All Being, or Nothingness, or God, or whatever you like, the point is the same. Death, like, birth, ushers in the next stage of existence in the movement from biocentrism and egocentrism to transcedant formless mysticism, from Malkuth to En Soph. The reference to the Kabbalistic Tree of Life is not pithy either: the true Tree of Life includes death.

Regarding The Fountain, Aronofsky was quoted as saying of Science Fiction and stories of technology that "We've seen it all. It's not really interesting to audiences anymore. The interesting things are the ideas; the search for God, the search for meaning." Here he, like his film, articulates the deep primitivism of the transhumanist thinking espoused by Thomas Creo. Naievely, it looks to science for hopes and answers to questions that we know it cannot answer... questions which its most ardently religious disciples dismiss with a conjuror's wave and a snide accusation of "superstition". The most relevant and interesting Science Fiction is not that which tells us about technology and what we can do to the cosmos with it, but about ourselves and our place in the cosmos.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The Prestige (2006)

The autumn of 2006 was a veritable golden age for fans of films about Victorian stage magicians. This was inspired, perhaps, by some unknown water additive consumed by two separate production companies, leading the to develop two films about the subject with a post-M. Night Shyamalan sensibility. Like the stories contained within the films, the two pictures themselves were rivals, and also like in the films, one of the two was hopelessly outmatched.

The first of these, released in September, was The Illusionist. Instead of a heated rivalry between fellow magicians, this "poor man's" Victorian magic story provides yet another story about class warfare, but with a disappointing pseudo-Shyamalanian twist provided by the titular emphasis on illusion and magic.

The film opens with the young son of a carpenter with a bent for slight of hand who falls in love with the young daughter of an aristocrat. Planning to run off together, the two are found out and forbidden from ever seeing each other again. Years and years later, the son - now the great Eisenheim the Illusionist (played by Edward Norton) - returns to Vienna and rekindles his romance with Duchess Sophie von Teschen (Jessica Biel), who happens to be betrothed to the villainous and abusive Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Investigated by perhaps the only really competently acted and sympathetic character in the whole picture, Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti), the star-cross'd lovers hatch a plan that they hope will see them escape the regimented world of Austro-Hungarian society for the green, soft-focused log cabins of the Alps.

It may not be possible to over-criticize The Illusionist for its reliance on an overdone premise. Not only did it have its competition to contend with, but it also had the grand tradition of Victorian literature which dealt with the issue of class and conflict with much more nuance and immediacy than did this picture a century after the fact. At this point, we are left with it's ultimate and crudest distillation, where of course the aristocrat has to be a drunk and a jerk, simply because he's an aristocrat. This is beyond the crime of horrible CGI at least 10 years behind its time.

The far more competent of the two films was released in October, debuting and then trouncing The Illusionist with many positive reviews and two Oscar nominations (for art direction and cinematography). Adapted and directed by Christopher Nolan of The Dark Knight fame, The Prestige brought Christopher Priest's novel of the same name to the screen in spectacularly fascinating and star-studded fashion.

Where The Illusionist attempts a Shyamalanian turn that doesn't really deliver anything you weren't expecting from the beginning, The Prestige twists it triumphantly... In fact, it's so remarkable that it makes a proper review of the film frustratingly impossible. There is a richness in the most critical theme of the film that one simply cannot discuss without giving away the ending. And as we all know, you're never supposed to reveal the secret to a magic trick.

What we can reveal is this: showman Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman), natural magician Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and engineer John Cutter (Michael Caine) are all assistants working under Milton the Magician (played by real-life magician Ricky Jay) when Borden's ambition to do riskier and more exciting tricks results in the drowning of Angier's escapist wife. Going their separate ways, the two begin escalating both their professional and personal vendetta, costing each other theatrical runs and limbs. The rivalry enters its final stage when Borden develops a shocking trick that completely stumps the team of Angier and Cutter: The Teleporting Man. In this trick, Borden sets a ball bouncing across the stage and enters a cabinet. Instantly he reappears from another cabinet at the far end of the stage and catches the ball. With no apparent means of pulling the trick off, Angier is desperate to solve the riddle. He develops his own variation using a double - The New Teleporting Man - but is still not satisfied. After sending his assistant Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) to spy on Borden for him, Angier's quest eventually leads him to a real miracle-worker... The elusive scientist Nikola Tesla.

A much-preferred story about the costs of revenge and obsession runs circles around another dry story about class warfare, but even when The Prestige does explore themes of class between the wealthy Angier and the working-class Borden, it is subtle and well-done. Their morality is ambiguous, their motivations complex, and overall they act something like how one might expect real human beings to act. Where Leopold is a jerk because he is an aristocrat and that's what they do, Angier is driven to cruelty by the most profound grief. Whether by incident or design, Jackman as the stage showman does act circles around the stolid Bale. An excellent performance is also put in by Caine, and Tesla's secretive persona is given exceptionally by the otherworldly and indomitable David Bowie.

Johansson, like Bale, more or less puts in time as the assistant Olivia, but ultimately her character isn't as important. In fact, one of the things that hurt The Prestige somewhat is misrepresentional advertising. Many reviews and taglines portrayed the film as two rival magicians vying for the affections of Johansson, which frankly couldn't be further from the truth. Few mentioned Bowie's Tesla and the mad science that would naturally follow.

Like Eisenheim to Leopold or Borden to Angier, The Prestige simply outmatches The Illusionist at every turn, including the big turn at the end. And of the two, The Prestige is well worth your time while The Illusionist is that boring dinner buffet magician whose tricks have all been done before.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

American Memory Project (2008)

Imagine the far, far distant future, a time so distant from now as we are from Julius Caesar and Ramses the Second. Like the ancient empires of Rome and Egypt, the United States of America has receded into the mists of history. The once-great republic is remembered only by a handful of archaeological remains.

In this time, the Internet has also evolved. Web 2.0 looks like paintings on the walls of Lascaux in comparison. Into this, an expedition of deep cyberspace miners has recovered the Library of Congress' American Memory, a patchy archive of this antiquated society.

Finding inspiration in this archaeological find of the millennium, a group of artists that we, in the 21st century, would call "multimedia" created an event they call the American Memory Project.

This is the premise behind the project by William Morrison and Justin Bennett, late of their stint with pioneer Industrial outfit Skinny Puppy's live performance band. Plumbing the material found in the Library of Congress' website, they have created a musical, video and live performance piece that twists the American cultural tradition on its ear, using its own words.

Sometimes it isn't hard. As their track Backwards Song demonstrates, there is plenty in the American folk tradition that does it for them. The history of her people never was the spit-polished golden age that it is often made out to be by partisans. In other cases, the twisting is made by contrasts, such as Dear Mr. President's layering of Big Band tunes with wartime newsclips.

The most potent pieces are those that fuse America's ethnic heritage with modern beats, such as the narratives of former slaves and the artifacts of Native American song. With these, a statement isn't made for you, isn't pounding you over the head. Instead, you're left to hear these bits and pieces of a bygone age to a creeping incidental soundtrack that sets the mood of time and loss.

Music of this sort is some of the most refreshing to come out of "dark culture", that ambiguous mash that has risen out of the former Goth-Industrial scene. Several years ago, the big thing was electronic-ethnic fusion, pulling in Mediaeval, Celtic and Arabesque influences. Now that this is becoming more prevalent, standardized and even stereotyped, new forms of fusion are being explored. For a lover of both early 20th century and Goth-Industrial music, such things as the American Memory Project (and Puppini Sisters remixes, for that matter) fit the bill perfectly.

The best of it is that in reinventing and re-presenting anthropological recordings, Big Band, Jazz and Bluegrass, the aural qualities of aged music are not lost. Walter Benjamin noted that the grey film of dust covering things have become their best feature, and so have all the pops, hisses, background noise and decayed sound quality. A rerecording of old 78s must be listenable, of course, which is often the weakness of otherwise indispensable online audio archives. But they must not be so cleaned up that they lose the sense of being old, just as one would not wish to scour a fine patina from a piece of antique furniture.

Taking this classic music, this aged sound, and setting it against Industrial sounds is a fantastic way to go with it. It goes from being a queer little novelty shared alongside steam trains and dime novels to something playable in hallucinogenic nightclubs. One only hopes, against all hope admittedly, that it can bypass the stage of stereotyping. "Dark culture" has become saturated with belly dancers, fetish aesthetics, and now brass goggles and air pirates. Bluegrass and war-years harmony lends itself to heavily tattooed and pompadoured imitators who have their own problems with overabundant "burlesque" acts.

Perhaps working to intercept this problem, the American Memory Project goes beyond music to include filmed segments. Present-day actors mouthing original soundbites move alongside dimensionalised Edward Curtis photographs and computer generated psychedelia, all made to look as vintage as the audio samples themselves. These elements were united in the live tour, which has found a home on DVD.

The visuals themselves range from interesting visualizations to adding immeasurably to the theme and meaning of each track. In Ghost Dance, for instance, the heavy beat of the tribal drums transitions on screen into the pounding of a steam engine as Manifest Destiny drives stakes into the land of Native Americans.

To sample their video, you can visit their site at For music, their MySpace site at

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Abney Park: Lost Horizons (2008)

Lost Horizons, the 2008 release by the once-Goth band Abney Park marks their first conscious effort at producing the ambiguous spectre of "Steampunk music." Given that Steampunk developed from a literary and cinematic genre to a style of fashion for people and computers, there has been significant debate over what exactly constitutes Steampunk music. For the most part, the only unifying factor between the varities of synth-pop and neo-folk are the outfits of the bandmembers. In that sense, Steampunk bears more similarity to Japanese Visual Kei as a genre defined less by any similarity in the music and more by the extravagant fashion of the bands themselves.

Despite appearances as the crew of the good airship Ophelia, Abney Park telegraphs their roots through their take on Steampunk. Like any proper Goth band, they have a visceral distaste for being referred to as such: call them a Goth band and they will be quick to correct you. They are a Steampunk band, though their take on Steampunk music seems to be Gothic synth-pop with airship pirates as a subject matter. The headline song on Lost Horizons bears that very title, Airship Pirate, and unfortunately doesn't seem to know what it's doing. As with other consciously "Steampunk" songs on the disk, like The Secret Life of Doctor Caligori, this attempt at a genre sound beyond a genre look can swing from awkwardly-exercised good clean fun to just plain awkward to listen to.

About the only one that works particularly well is the Dresden Dolls-esque Herr Drosselmeyer's Doll, which is at its best when joined to its live performance, as seen here at The Edison bar in Los Angeles:

Where Abney Park shines is in the tracks that hearken to their beautiful and accomplished fusion of Gothic synth with Middle Eastern motifs and Classical instruments. Without the pretense of singing airship pirate shanties, Abney Park are simply amazing Ethnic Fusion artisans. The standout track is Sleep Isabella, which recalls the soaring rhythms of their previous album, The Death of Tragedy. That disk was one of the best Goth albums in recent memory and shows Abney Park at their most inspired. Despite however much they may want to be rollicking airship pirates, their muses are evidently William Shakespeare and Joseph Campbell.

Sleep Isabella compares quite favourably to Death of Tragedy's best songs, like Dear Ophelia, The Wrong Side and Stigmata Martyr. I Am Stretched on Your Grave is another notable track that trades in danceability for an interesting rendition of a 17th century Irish poem. She and The Dark and Twisty Road are also quite good.

The trajectory of Abney Park seems to be towards refining their idea of Steampunk music. Given this reviewer's preference for synth-pop, their idea is in a way better than neo-folk drenched in cabaret stylings. Given the above criticisms, it would be even more prefered if they let go of the gimmick as anything more than a visual style and followed where the music actually took them. However, they wouldn't be the first Goth band caught up with trying too hard to make songs about awkward subjects, be they vampires or airships.

Thursday, 16 April 2009


Before Transformers: Evolutions - Hearts of Steel, there was still one Decepticon that fused the futuristic technology of Cybertron with the antiquated technology of the Victorian Era: Astrotrain. As a bit of a small-time player in the ranks of Megatron, serving most often as transportation, Astrotrain was one of the handful of Transformer Triple-Changers. On either side of his robot mode were a modern space shuttle and a purple steam locomotive.

Long gone, the original toy was recently reissued in more accurate black and white (as opposed to purple and grey) and completely remade in the Transformers: Classics line. Unfortunately, that slick new version dispensed with the poetry of a Transformer reflecting humanity's advancements in transportation technology by having him morph into a bullet train instead of a steam engine. Here, however, are photos of the original action figure:

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Transformers: Evolutions - Hearts of Steel (2006)

As any fan of the genre well knows, there isn't a single Science Fiction or Fantasy story that couldn't be made better by being turned into a retro-Scientific Romance. There is an intangible, exponential increase in sheer coolness added by steam and Victorian fittings.

For example, amateurish director Peter Jackson's storyless 12-hour miniseries Lord of the Rings might have actually been rendered watchable by the addition of some Escaflowne-esque giant gilded robots. Or take The Matrix: after a war with humanity in which the entirety of earth's coal reserves were incinerated, the victorious sentient Babbage Engines began using captured humans' own body heat to power their boilers, plugging the victims' consciousnesses into an artificial recreation of the height of Victorian society. Stephen Vossler and the crew of Steam Trek already figured out how easy it is to put your chin up and boldly go where no gentleman has gone before.

Another metamorphosis that should practically write itself is a Victorian variation of Transformers. As nearly any child of the 1980's could tell you, the premise of the original Transformers is that a race of warring robots from the planet Cybertron crash land on earth four million years ago. Awoken in 1984 by a volcanic eruption in the northwest United States, these Autobot and Decepticon soldiers take on the forms of automobiles, jet planes, cassette decks and other gadgets in order to continue their war secretly on this new planet.

So simple a premise should be able to translate very easily into Scientific Romance form. Instead of waking up in 1984, have the Transformers wake up in 1884, and instead of transforming into sleek new-model cars, have them transform in to locomotives and Model-T's. Just about all you'd have to do is rewrite the original cartoon series with Optimus Prime as a steam train, Megatron as an artillery canon or Colt revolver, Soundwave as a gramophone, and Starscream as some kind of crazy aeroplane, and any Victorian aficionado in their 30's would weep tears of joy.

Nevertheless, the creators of IDW Publishing's Transformers: Evolutions - Hearts of Steel comic managed to bungle this concept in spectacularly boring fashion. we ordinarily don't want to devote time in this weblog to things we don't like, but this series was so awful that it deserves a warning to potential buyers, if nothing else. According to the publishers: "Ever wondered what form your favorite Transformers would take if they existed in different eras? Wonder no more, as IDW’s new Evolutions line will look at some special out-of-continuity tales involving the Robots in Disguise." That there has been no Transformers: Evolutions series since Hearts of Steel tells one how successful the venture was.

The first issue of this four-issue mini-series begins with some unnecessary backstory about Transformers fighting in the age of dinosaurs and then bedding down to sleep for a few million years. Thanks to the activities of various groups of humans, including John Henry and Mark Twain, the Autobot Bumblebee and Decepticon forces loyal to Starscream rise from their torpor to a Victorian world.

Following their resuscitation, the Decepticons prepare a plan to subjugate humanity by sending the dreaded Astrotrain to New York. Bumblebee, the group of humans, and a handful of other Autobots he calls upon engage in a highspeed locomotive chase to stop them from getting to America's great metropolis... and succeed. The Decepticons fall really deep into a valley, and the handful of Autobots go back to sleep. End of story.

Yes, this reviewer gave away the story, but they say that the real fun is in getting there. Well, in this case, it isn't. What this reviewer did is, hopefully, save you some money by dissuading you from buying this woefully missed opportunity.

A mere mortal, wondering what Tranformers would look like during the Industrial Revolution, might hope to see some of them. Ideally, they might even like to see them in action, transforming in and out of their vehicular modes in their pursuit of the energy necessary to defeat their mortal enemies. Instead, we are given a mere handful, and only two - Bumblebee and Shockwave - fulfill their duty of showing us really cool, steel-plated, turn-of-the-century Transformers.

To be sure there is plenty of concept art showing what all these machines would look like, but concept art is as far as they got. Sketches exist of Optimus as a steam train and Megatron as an artillery canon, but they never surface in the comic. In fact, the characters that are present repeat over and over again that they either don't need to wake Optimus or want to wake Megatron. Sorry guys, but we need you to wake Optimus.

Those few other Transformers that rear their heads needn't have really bothered. Starscream never assumes the flying machine mode shown in concept sketches, and every single other Autobot transforms into a boxcar. The only one to come as close to delivering the goods as Bumblebee and Shockwave is the original movie character Scourge with his zeppelin form.

The bulk of the story is taken up by some human drama that one could really care less about. As children, it is safe to say that few of us ever found the trials of the Autobots' human companions nearly as engaging as the Autobots themselves, and as adults that disinterest has only intensified. It only adds further insult to injury to see the solo-flying duo of Bumblebee and John Henry defeat the fearful Decepticon rolling weapon of mass destruction called Astrotrain by simply derailing it.

Oh if only Astrotrain did reach New York! If it did, we might have actually seen some action. Unfortunately it didn't, and we're left with the bitter taste of disappointment as what could have been an amazing series was executed by a publisher who didn't seem to grasp the whole point of doing such a series.

At least IDW had the presence of mind to release their concept sketches for all to enjoy. And you had best enjoy them here, because you won't see them in the actual comic.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

The Evolution of Technology

More commercials... This time, Saturn informs us, in German, of the evolution of technology. Their account of world history may be off somewhat, but it includes a steam-powered Tyrannosaurus rex, and that is awesome.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Cailler Chocolates

We enjoy a well-conceived attempt to obfuscate the processes of mass production consumerism with a witty concept. Christmas, for an example. And these advertisments by Callier Chocolates are a compelling entry in that vein... Suddenly we have an urge to attend to a nearby European delicatessen.

While in Switzerland, one also has the option of touring their factory, which the Cailler website describes as an experience that "is sensitive, sensual and poetic, giving the visitor a window into the world of chocolate by means of a transparent and sparkling aesthetic." A quite agreeable prospect indeed!